A Gent's Outlook

A Literary Agent Divulges the TRUTH about Publishing

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Free Advice (which means it is worth nothing)

Tambo posted this question on Anti-Plot Writers Rant:

Thanks for the post!I have a somewhat related question about pitches, if that's okay. I'm about to turn in my third novel with a major publisher (to complete my contract) and they've requested five or six more concepts to be pitched this spring. I don't pre-plot. How would you suggest an intuitive writer create a pitch package for several books when, other than loose "I'm thinking something sort of like this..." there's nothing to actually show?Just curious...

Sammy’s answer:

I don' t know that publishers would want that many ideas from an author--I have never had anyone ask for that--but what the hell, I'll play along.

Of course you pre-plot. It’s just not called a pre-plot but a story idea. Books don’t come out of thin air. They appear as thought germs that become “what-ifs” and “but, what-ifs,” which become questions and more questions and more questions until there is a story. Stories might be character-driven or plot-driven, but they are stories nonetheless.

The character/characters should always determine directions the story might take. If you let plot drive your characters, you will have a story that is forced, dumb, and unreal. This is what I was raving about, not just plotting in general. There is this idea out there, probably from MFA schools, that you get a plot board, map out the story, then insert your characters. In real writing, the kind gifted writers get involved in, plot is a loose idea. The story might go the way the story idea was originally formulated, but characters always must be given free reign to determine how the story will eventually go. Situations created by the author are acted out by his or her characters. There is no script. In a properly written story, the characters are free to act as they will. They may do one thing or another; this is the joy of writing fiction. The author watches and records the story as his or her characters act it out.

So, in your pitch, summarize five or six story ideas. You can flesh these out by injecting characters into them and begin by creating a life change (conflict) in the path of each character. Now envision how each character in each given scenario will react and try to resolve (try to move things back to normal) the presented dilemma in each given situation. This is how you present it; however, your finished story will probably never be the one you present.

For your purposes, you don’t have to go too far. You only have to think up five or six stories. For instance, two normally honest people rob a bank then find out they were programmed to do this by some unseen force (science fiction). A woman’s life is shattered when she falls in love with her first cousin, then later learns that he was adopted (love story). A woman flees from an abusive relationship only to find that her husband is stalking her with the intent to kill her (suspense). These examples are corny and have been done a thousand times, but, hopefully, you get the general idea. Flesh can be added to these story skeletons as needed for your proposal.

The other option is write five or six novels before spring--you get to pick.

Hey, look Ma, no expletives!


  • At 4:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sam, man, you rock!

    I am a newer agent, and, goddamn, am I glad there is someone twisting the bull’s tail. This business is nuts. If I had known then what I know now, I would have gone into PR. At least there is somewhere now to vent anonymously.

    There are some things that are driving me crazy, and stupidity is one of them. To give you an example, I saw recently where a wannabe actually copied a quote from an agent’s website, without his permission of course, and then misquoted the quote that was right in front of her. That’s pretty rich in and of itself, but then comes the board’s expert (every writer’s board has at least one expert; this is an old board and it has two, sometimes three) and she misinterpreted the plagiarized quote,too, also showing that neither was the shiniest apple in the barrel. I’m not near as bright as these experts claim to be, but I figured out what the agent was saying. It wasn’t that hard. The stuff I see on these boards is atrocious, but it’s like watching a car wreck—I just can’t look away.

    My advice to all you wannabes (Sammy’s favorite word) if you are going to plagiarize something off an agent’s site and give your take on what it means, don’t make a damned fool of yourself unless you are absolutely sure you understand what you’ve copied. If you don’t understand it, at least have someone else look at it before you look dumb in front of the entire world. George Bush can get away with stuff like that because he has, or had, the mandate of the people. He’s the hero of those who flunked English. But you are supposed to be a writer, so you have no such mandate. If you think you are the only one who can use Google, then you are actually double-stupid. Everything you say on writer boards can be Googled without going anywhere near that board. Oh, I know most of you don’t use your real names, but you know who you are, so it must be embarrassing to know when you reread your post how dumb you sounded. But then, maybe not. Like my dad used to say, ignorance is bliss.

    I feel much better now.


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